September 29, 2003

What Are We Doing in Cornwall?

The simple answer to the question “What Are We Doing In Cornwall?” is that we are staying in Rachel’s summer cottage during the off-season. The rent’s cheap, I don’t have to work for awhile, and I can take some time off to figure out what I want to do next.

The more complicated answer is that Cornwall is a stepping stone on the path to what we hope will be a new, simpler, more meaningful, life for the four of us.

We left California on September 4, 2003. Coincidentally, exactly 25 years before, on September 4, 1978 I arrived in California, after driving cross-country with my sister in a 1972 VW bug, to attend graduate school at U.C. Berkeley. In the intervening 25 years I have worked at Intel, Apple, Wired Digital, and at quite a few internet start-ups (none of which, unfortunately, made me enough to retire on). I traveled to India, Nepal, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Cuba to name just a few places. And I studied mathematics at U.C. Berkeley, and electical engineering and computer science at U.C. Davis. All in all, it was a very wonderful, very full, and very fulfilling, 25 years.

The idea of doing something different started taking shape about three years ago. We were in the middle of refinancing our house in Sausalito, when I was looking over the paperwork and it hit me that as I was then 44, I would be 74 before the house was paid off. I had to stop and ask myself whether I really wanted to work for the next 30 years in order to live in that house. The short answer was no. The longer answer was, as you might expect, more complicated.

Instead of trying to explain everything here, I will sign off now, and pick this thread up again tomorrow under a new title. Until then, sweet dreams.

Posted by: Frank @ 11:55 pm — Filed under: Comments (4)

Moving Countries Is Easier Than Moving Email Clients

There are many things that are difficult about moving countries, and we had lists containing hundreds of items to remind us of that. The lists seemed to have a life of their own – 10 items would get crossed off, 12 items would get added – they were like a beast with an unquenchable appetite.

Just before we left my PC blew up, and so I took a deep breath and added “Buy a new computer” to the end of the list. This happened so close to our departure date that I only picked up the computer two days before we left. And because of that, I had no chance to check that my old system disk actually worked on it.

For the past several days I have been pulling my hair out trying to recover 450 names and addresses, along with some 5000 emails stored in Outlook on that old PC. I’d been thinking about writing something about it for this weblog even though it’s a little off-topic, but after reading Phil Greenspun’s article entitled Let’s Bash Microsoft Today I just couldn’t help myself. At the end of his article he asks people to add comments describing what they dislike about Microsoft. Adding my comments was the perfect antidote to the venom I’ve been feeling for the last couple of days.

The gory details of my trials are contained in the extended entry portion of this article rather than inline, both because it is quite long, and because it would probably bore most of you gentle readers to tears.

But whether or not you read the extended entry, never fear, there is a mildly Cornwall related moral to this story. Here in Cornwall there are hundreds of public footpaths that criss-cross the country-side, and there’s a long and deep history of certain things belonging to the public trust, and being done for the common good. What I learned from this hair-pulling email-conversion experience is that while I can’t change Microsoft’s lock-in policies, I can use the software equivalent of the public footpath – non-proprietary formats, and cross-platform tools – as often as possible.

Here’s my hair-pulling tale of dealing with Microsoft lock-in:

In answer to PhilG, what do I hate about Microsoft? I hate lock-in. But what I really hate is that it took 2 days to get MY addresses and emails out of MY outlook.pst files.

We’ve just moved to England from San Francisco, and my PC motherboard crapped out just before we left. It was a 5 year old PC, so I bought a new one, took the old disks out of my old system, including my old system disk, and brought them with me. This happened just before we left, and as I picked up the computer two days before departing I didn’t have enough time to test that the old system disk worked in the new PC before we left. When I got here I tried to boot the old system disk. No luck – blue screen on startup related to a bad disk driver. Luckily I had a USB disk enclosure that let me mount the old startup disk. And this is where my list of things I hate about Microsoft begins:

#1. I found a document on the M$ site that told me how to edit the registry to add support for all types of generic disk drivers. But I can’t do this because there’s no way to tell regedit to edit the registry on another disk. Lock-in.

#2. Thank gawd I think, I have my Server 2000 disk with me. So I boot up with the CD and do a repair. Still won’t boot.

#3. I spend a couple of hours surfing the web (on my iBook), and finally find a document on a non-MS site that explains that the first repair option is useless, you want to choose Install, and then choose the second Repair option. I do that, and reboot…and voila, it boots (though the video is stuck as VGA and the USB and Firewire don’t work). I launch Outlook. It won’t launch, because it’s lost all of my registry settings doing the “repair", and it wants me to reinstall Office, including Outlook. Why I wonder, if none of my other program’s registry settings were affected, why have I lost my Office registry settings? Could it be lock-in?

#4. So reinstall Outlook you’re probably saying. Unfortunately my Outlook disk is in the middle of the Atlantic, on a boat along with my bike and other possessions, and it won’t be here for another 3 weeks. Am I going to buy another copy of Outlook? Fat chance. So I decide to see if I can find a program that will import the outlook.pst file.

#5. I wonder if Outlook Express will import Outlook files. I reboot using the new system disk (by this time I have swapped system disks over 12 times, and it’ll be at least another 12 before I’m done here). I choose Import. It asks from where. I choose Outlook. It tells me I need to have Outlook installed. Huh? Where’s the Open File dialog letting me choose the outlook.pst file to import? Oh yeah, lock-in.

#6. I’ve about had it with Outlook right about now, and decide that I’m going to ditch Outlook and move my addresses to something else. I get back onto the web and see if I can find a program that will parse the outlook.pst file directly. Nothing. Everything seems to need Outlook installed and running. Except one entry on Slashdot which mentions a Linux conversion program whose programmer got a cease and desist letter from Microsoft. More lock-in.

#7. I download Mozilla, and use its Import facility. It too needs Outlook installed. I look at the Mozilla source and see what registry settings it’s using. I swap disks, get the registry settings off my old disk, swap disks again, add them to my new registry. Doesn’t work. More lock-in.

#8. Desperate times call for random motion. I reboot the old system disk and start Outlook Express. The first thing it does is ask if I want to import my files from Outlook. What? Wow! I guess there’s some remant of an Outlook registry setting left sitting around. So I say yes, and voila I’ve got all my addresses and emails in Outlook Express. Whew, 450 names and addresses safe. Or maybe I should just call them visible at this point.

#9. Great, let’s see if I can upgrade the drivers on this old system disk so it works with this new motherboard (which has Firewire, USB, etc.). I insert the Intel drivers CD, and the first thing it does is tell me I don’t have an Intel motherboard. Oh come on, it’s not really looking in the registry to decide what board I’ve got? Surely it’s smart enough to poke the motherboard directly? Nope, more lock-in.

#10. After almost 2 days I have come to realize I’m going to have to give up on using this old system disk, and ever again using the 100+ programs I’ve got installed. But how do I move my Outlook Express files to the new system disk? I try Export. I can export the addresses into a text file, but there’s no way to export the emails except into Outlook or Exchange formats. More lock-in.

#11. Maybe I can just move the Outlook Express files directly. No help on the Microsoft site. But after a little digging I see a bunch of .dbx files that Outlook Express is using. I copy them to the right directory on the new system disk. I swap disks again. Reboot. And…yes, I now have Outlook Express running on my new system disk and all my old addresses and emails.

Total running time: 2 days, plus at least 10 examples of lock-in.

The story doesn’t stop there, though this entry will, as I’ve decided to move the addresses and emails to my iBook. But that will have to be a story for another day.

Posted by: Frank @ 2:11 pm — Filed under: Comments (0)

September 28, 2003

The Stars Are Brighter In Cornwall

I woke up this morning at 4am, and lay in bed wondering why I couldn’t sleep. My mind was racing, and once I’d throttled it down a bit I realized that I wanted to get up and write. There are so many things I want to write about that I feel a bit like the little Dutch boy, but instead of keeping my finger in the dike I’m about to pull it out and see what happens.

Why is that I wondered? What has happened that I want to write; that I feel the need to write?

One thing that’s happened is that we are a long way away from our friends and family in California and Cape Cod, and I miss them terribly, and want to stay in touch.

Another thing that’s happened is that I’m not programming right now. Programming for me is an intense creative exercise that leaves me feeling both fulfilled and a little empty. Fulfilled because I love the puzzle/challenge aspect of designing a new piece of software. And empty because it crowds out the other creative parts of my life.

But the most important thing that’s happened is that we are here in Cornwall.

We took the water taxi from Padstow back to Rock this evening after our first dinner out since we’d arrived in England on September 4th. The night sky was incredibly clear, and looking up I could see why the ancients had been so fascinated by it – the Big Dipper was comically easy to pick out, and the North Star was bright enough to navigate by. As the boat slipped gently through the water, I breathed deeply of the night air and realized that like the night sky, our life is becoming a little clearer and brighter as well – not necessarily better yet, just clearer and brighter.

Back home in California there were a thousand, no, ten thousand, things to do, on any day of the year. Theater, movies, running, biking, shopping, restaurants, television, advertisements – you name it and it was vying for our attention. In Cornwall there are fewer of those things, a lot fewer of those things. And just as the lack of light pollution allows one to see the night sky more clearly, the lack of cultural pollution (for want of a better phrase) gives one the time and space to see one’s life a little more clearly. And to hopefully do something different with it.

Posted by: Frank @ 5:01 am — Filed under: Comments (4)

September 26, 2003

Am I Hitch Hiking Or Driving?

I dropped Rachel off at the train station this afternoon, and on the way home saw a young man hitchhiking in Bodmin. I looked in the mirror for about 50 yards, and then something compelled me to stop.

Ollie was heading to Polzeath to pick up a car from his brother. His brother lives in a caravan (a converted Ford delivery truck) at one of the several caravan parks in and around Polzeath (which is a well-known surfing beach). Ollie works in a fancy new restaurant in Oxford, in between school (high school to you Yanks) and uni (university to you Yanks). He turned out to be a very nice, polite kid, and we chatted all the way into Polzeath.

Why do I mention this? First, I can’t remember the last time I picked up a hitch hiker; I guess something about being in a very small town has made me more willing to trust people, especially given that Sebastian was in the back seat sleeping. Second, the fact that I could have an interesting conversation with a teenager is contrary to my experience with many teenagers in the US who have trouble talking about much except music and videos. And third, he asked me why we’d moved to Cornwall, and then seemed genuinely interested in the answer.

Which got me thinking again about why I’m here, in Cornwall. I realize that I’ve talked a lot about it, and I’ve explained it countless times, but I also realize that I’ve never written it down. And I wonder if that’s because like the sands under the surf, spoken words can be shifted and changed as the winds and tides require. I suppose it’s finally time to write it down.

And for the last several weeks, as we’ve tried to get settled, I’ve felt more like the hitch hiker than the driver in this new life. And maybe it’s time for that to change as well.

Posted by: Frank @ 1:31 am — Filed under: Comments (0)

September 24, 2003

Do Pigs Poop Hamburgers Out?

While Rachel’s been away I’ve been trying to take the boys out somewhere different every morning. We’ve been to the Bodmin Railroad, to Trevethan Farm where we picked our own strawberries, and Newquay (you’ll notice there’s no writeup about Newquay on this blog because there’s nothing to write about Newquay. There were hundreds of people with surf boards, seemingly endless surf shops and arcades, and not a wave to be seen. Horrible place, best to be avoided unless you’re between 16 and 20 and have raging hormones.).

Yesterday we went to the Portreath Bee Centre. One enters on the ground floor into a shop that is chock-a-block full of things to buy, none of which I could quite bring myself to take home. Upstairs there’s a tea-room, and a door through which one can only go by shelling out £1.50 for an adult and 75p for a child (Sebastian the baby got in free). On the other side of the door is a room split into approximately two halves, the closest of which has a tv with a bee video and 20 chairs just begging someone to sit down and watch. On the other side of the room are a couple of scraggly bee hives with bees in various stages of honey making, along with pictures of some old time bee hives that were woven by hand using caning techniques and covered in cow dung to make them airtight (pretty interesting actually). Nathaniel enjoyed it, but then he saw the sheep outside and immediately wanted to go look at the sheep, so I’d give it a solid C, nice enough, but not enthralling for a 4-year old.

Outside, he wanted to know how bees made honey. I have come to expect post-experience questions from Nathaniel. He often internalizes what he’s seeing, and then comes up with a couple of questions anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 days later (the 2 day later questions can make for interesting conversation as one tries to remember what it was he saw recently to warrant the question). So in answer to his question, “How do bees make honey?", I explained what I knew, that bees visited flowers to collect nectar, then flew back to the hive to put it into the honey-combs. He then wanted to know how they stuck it in the honey-combs. I didn’t know the answer, so I said “They poop it out. Honey is just bee poop.” (I’ve since looked up how they do it on the web, and now know that bee pollen is bee poop, not bee honey, so -1 for Dad on the answer scale).

Earlier in the morning we’d been at Trevethan Farm, where in addition to picking strawberries, we’d looked at rabbits and guinea pigs and a pig. While we were looking at the pig, I’d told him that pigs were where bacon comes from, that when he ate a piece of bacon he was eating the pig. At the time he’d just nodded and asked to be pushed on the swing in the play area.

So, after looking at the sheep outside the Bee Centre, and trying to pet the ponies (who, as we didn’t have any carrots or sugar cubes, weren’t having any of it), we were finally all strapped into the car, and driving home. From the backseat Nathaniel piped up with one final question, “Hey dada, do pigs poop hamburgers out?” I couldn’t help but laugh because I knew exactly where that question had come from.

Posted by: Frank @ 9:19 pm — Filed under: Comments (3)